Global Plant Council Blog

Plant Science for Global Challenges

Category: Global Collaborations

Can agricultural initiatives deliver wins for the health of the planet and its population?

By W.J Davies and Jianbo Shen

Lancaster Environment centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster, LA1 4YQ. The UK and National Academy of Agriculture Green Development, Centre for Resources, Environment, and Food Security, China Agricultural University, Beijing, 100193, China.

Fourth post of our “Global Collaboration” series

In early 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems produced its first report.  The Commission report addressed our need to effectively ‘feed a growing global population with a healthy diet while also defining the kinds of sustainable food systems that will minimise damage to our planet’.  While it is clear that our current food and farming practices threaten both human and planetary health, the Commission concludes ‘that Global Food Systems can provide win-win diets to everyone by 2050 and beyond. However, this will require nothing less than a Great Food Transformation

Despite a growing realisation of the magnitude of the challenges that are a part of such transformations, in most societies, progress is slow. Plants Science has much to contribute to enable better diet quality, increase crop productivity, enhance environmental sustainability and create new products and manufacturing processes (see example) but cannot alone bring about all of the required transformations.

For the required changes in government policies and in human behaviour, we must be able to convince people of both the nature and magnitude of the growing threats to human and planetary health as well convince all sectors of society to adopt as targets for the future, such as  the UN Sustainability Goals. A range of actions is required from both organisations and individuals working at all scales.

Effective knowledge exchange

Effective knowledge exchange (KE) mechanisms between scientists and food producers is recognised as being key to delivery of many changes in practice required within the framework defined above. Change is perhaps more easily achieved at the industrial farming scale where new genotypes and changes to farming systems are commonly produced and accepted. A wide range of publications means that practitioners can regularly see that these innovations can have significant effects on food availability and quality. However, most food in the world is still produced by smallholders and effective examples at scale of KE between science and this community are less common.

In China, there is an urgent need to address issues of food access and availability, food quality and safety and the environmental impact of agriculture in a society where diets are changing as the economy grows. As part of China’s successful green revolution over the last 50 years, enormous increases in food production have been achieved largely as a result of advances in both plant breeding and agronomy Very large increases in the usage of fertiliser, agrochemicals and particularly of water have increased productivity but all of this has been very damaging to the environment in many regions. Commonly, both quality and safety of food are significant issues in China due to both contamination with agrochemicals and as a result of food fraud.

Nevertheless some positive changes are underway in the food system with increased consumption of fruit and organic vegetables in Chinese diets but even here extra water use is often required and this is certainly the case also as a result of increasing consumption of meat in the diets of increasing numbers of people. Excess water consumption has reduced water tables in many regions of China (and other important food production regions). Reduction to dangerously low levels is leading to desertification in some regions with real threats to capacity for sustained production by farmers in these and other regions. Excess fertiliser use has resulted in many high profile pollution problems in surface waters which are valuable both for agriculture and for cultural tourism.

Results of excess fertilising

Ecological Civilization

The introduction by scientists at China Agriculture University of ‘Science and Technology Backyards’ (STBs) is one very innovative approach to helping smallholders in China transform agriculture to respond to the challenge of greater ‘Ecological Civilization’, as set out in recent years by the Chinese Government. Using such an approach to exploit recent advances in plant and crop science is very much in tune with the agenda of EAT-Lancet Commission. In increasing numbers of communities across China, agricultural scientists living in villages among farmers to achieve yield and economic gains sustainably. The aims of this knowledge exchange programme are to advance participatory innovation and technology transfer and garner public and private support for these innovations. The approach has identified multifaceted yield-limiting factors involving agronomic, infrastructural, and socioeconomic conditions and interventions at the personal and community level are transforming peoples’ lives.

Due to past experiences of famine and political instability, China’s government has made grain production and food security a top priority for the nation. By the 2000s, after years of food shortage, China finally produced enough food annually to feed its enormous population. Now, China has set a new target of green growth in future grain production. This target involves high efficiency in resource use with reduced environmental risk. Novel developments in agronomy enable maintenance of a relatively high grain yield on a regional scale. To help deliver on these targets, China is also developing strong policy incentives for environmental protection and green growth in grain production. Going forward, it is planned that Chinese agriculture will continue to put into practice a vision of innovative, coordinated rural revitalization and green development. The science and technology backyard (STB) model could provide an effective approach to realize the green development of agriculture, as it aims to close yield gaps in China by empowering smallholder farmers through integrating efforts of researchers, farmers, the government, and agro-enterprises.


Success at scale in improving sustainable resource use and increasing grain production in China will enhance the country’s food security while decreasing poverty and the environmental footprint of food production, thereby contributing to the global goal of sustainable development. To meet new demands of Chinese agriculture in a new era, as well as for promoting further implementation of United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the National Academy of Agriculture Green Development and the International School of Agriculture Green Development were launched by China Agricultural University in July, 2018.  A national strategy of Agricultural Green Development, issued by the central Chinese Government is likely to provide valuable understanding and new production practices,   particularly for smallholders in other developing countries that are already facing or will soon face dietary and environmental challenges similar to those currently faced by China.

Getting heard: impactful knowledge exchange

By Ros Gleadow (Monash University).

Third post of our “Global Collaboration” series

My first job was as a research assistant in a wheat physiology lab. I read a few papers on the effect of rising CO2 on yield and grain quality (e.g. Gifford 1979, Hocking & Meyer 1991). “That’s interesting“, I thought, but surely this won’t be an issue in my life time? The effect of CO2 emissions on grain protein and bread quality have only recently come to the fore but the science has been known for decades. Why does it take so long to get the message across? It took 50 years from discovery that tobacco was harmful and addictive to stopping advertising it; 30 years from the observation that putting babies to sleep on their fronts was associated with increased SIDS to a change in parenting patterns. But do we have that luxury? Can the process be sped up?

You often hear “scientists just need to communicate better“. But communication is a two-way street. You can talk all you like but if no one is listening, then it’s not going to get very far. In this blog post, I want to challenge my fellow scientist to think beyond talking at people to facilitating genuine knowledge exchange.

Knowledge Exchange programs: Start with the Why

There are four main questions to ask when developing knowledge exchange programs:

  • Who is doing the exchanging?
  • What do we want to communicate?
  • How can this be facilitated?
  • And most importantly – Why? To improve food security in a changing world
Figure 1: Starting with Why: Adapted from Sinek

Simon Sinek is famous for challenging businesses and communicators to start with the Why, and then everything else takes on a new perspective (Fig. 1) In the case of the Global Plant Council, the why is to improve food security in a changing world. Much as we love plants, the point of the Global Plant Council is not plant biology, it’s the preservation of biodiversity and food security.

Sinek then moves onto the HOW and the WHAT. As researchers, I believe we need to add another layer in there – WHO. This comes from our WHY. There are many different audiences – policy makers, research agencies, researchers, consortiums, industry, the general public, managers, students, journalists. farmers, climate change deniers. 

Effective communication demands that understand the purpose of the communication (WHY), and the wants, needs and desires of the different stake holders (WHO).

Communicating so that people get the message

Scientists are experts. That’s a good thing – we need experts. Back in the 1950s, people believed experts; they did whatever the doctor said without questioning it. But in this world of ‘alternative facts, a fresh approach is needed.  Social scientists have shown that giving your audience more and more facts does little to shift opinions. I believe we need to break out of the paradigm where, as Julian Cribb puts it (Cribb and Hartomo 2002), scientists are the “high priests” of knowledge because that makes scientific knowledge seem like a religion, something you can choose to believe in or not.

Fig2: Levels of communication (adapted from Cribb and Hartomo)

There are different ways of communicating with your audience (Fig. 2). If the audience respects the science then a monologue where you are the expert works well, although even then an effort should be made to make what you are saying relevant to the audience.

Ask yourself: What does THIS audience need to know? The answer usually comes from dialogue, where you as the scientist listen to what the person is interested in, or what the needs of the industry group are, and then you respond. At both these levels, the scientist is still the ‘expert’.

With community engagement knowledge is built collaboratively – the scientist is just one part of the conversation. This is hard for those of us who think we know everything, but it can lead to new and valuable perspectives. One example stands out in my mind.  This was at a workshop that Prof Tim Cavagnaro and I ran on cyanide in cassava with plant breeders, dieticians, epidemiologist and agricultural extension workers from Mozambique (Burns et al. 2012). One of the agricultural scientists commented that they preferred to grow cassava with big leaves. I’m immediately thinking, yes, that makes sense –  a high leaf area increased photosynthesis, etc. Then Tim asked: “Why do you do that?” and he answered, “Well, we eat the leaves, and if they are big, we don’t need to pick as many.” This was an important lesson for me in listening to the end user.

Facilitating Knowledge Exchange

The question remains, is there a role for the Global Plant Council in helping to improve knowledge exchange in line with our purpose of promoting plant science with the view to improving global food security? We’d love to hear from our member organizations about what you find helpful that we currently do, and what we could we do more of.

This blog post has been mostly about informal knowledge exchange programs but the principles apply to formal programs as well. Practical information like what language to use or the appropriate medium can be readily found with a quick internet search. You need to find a style you are comfortable with. Prof Sir Gustav Nossal, one of Australia’s leading scientists, once said: “Assume infinite intelligence and zero knowledge” [of your audience]. Good advice.

Our WHY is too important – we can’t afford to wait another 50 years.


Hocking, P. J. & Meyer, C. P. 1991 Effects of CO2 enrichment and nitrogen stress on growth, and partitioning of dry matter and nitrogen in wheat and maize.

Gifford, R.M. 1979 Growth and yield of CO2-enriched wheat under water-limited conditions. Australian Journal of Plant Physiology 6: 367-378  

Cribb, J & Hartomo, TS 2002, ‘Chapter 1: A case for sharing knowledge’. Sharing knowledge: a guide to effective science communication, CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne, pp.1-15.

Sinek, S 2009 “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” Penguin, NY.

Burns AE, Gleadow RM, Zacarias A, Cuambe CE, Miller RE, Cavagnaro TR (2012) Variations in the chemical composition of cassava (Manihot esculenta Crantz) leaves and roots as affected by genotypic and environmental variation. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 60:4946–4956.

Interdisciplinary Science Communication Experiences in China

Authors: Shannon K. King1,4, Jon T. Stemmle2, Robert E. Sharp3,4

1Department of Biochemistry, 2School of Journalism, 3Division of Plant Sciences, and 4Interdisciplinary Plant Group, University of Missouri, Columbia, USA

Second post of our “Global Collaboration” series

Earning a graduate degree in the life sciences is all about preparing students to become productive and competitive in today’s scientific field; ensuring they are at the cutting edge of technology and knowledge. However, one aspect of graduate education that is seemingly overlooked is extending outside of the lab and learning how to become a scientist in the global community. This oversight is something that scientists at the University of Missouri and China Agricultural University are working to combat.

Dr. Felix Fritschi, University of Missouri, while talking with China Agricultural University graduate students

In August 2018, faculty, graduate students and post-docs from both universities came together in Beijing for a workshop to discuss scientific areas of expertise ranging from wetland ecology to crop modeling. This allowed attendees to practice collaborating with other scientists internationally and across disciplines.

Joint Scicomm US-China Workshop

Introducing the concept of breaking multiple “language” barriers

One of the key skills the graduate students developed during the workshop was how to communicate science in multiple languages. The students had to overcome the challenges of communicating science in English and Chinese along with explaining it to scientists outside of their disciplines and then take those experiences and turn them into videos, stories and blog posts that the public could enjoy. 

Needless to say, the students quickly learned that not only is science communication difficult, but the degree of difficulty rises exponentially when trying to communicate with an audience outside of your native language and discipline. To tackle the language barrier, students avoided jargon and slowed their speaking pace to clearly articulate their points. Many times, the students from the two universities took the breaks between sessions to really talk to each other about the presentation content to solidify what the takeaways were. It was these informal discussions that led to very productive conversations. Students also pointed out the similarities and differences between their projects, allowing for bridges to be built between what would normally be very different fields. 

Another part of this workshop helped the students to learn how to better engage with the general public. While in China, the Missouri graduate students performed journalistic tasks in order to demonstrate what they learned and experienced during the workshop. They took video footage, interviewed workshop attendees and conceptualized how to turn all of that content into stories. When the Missouri students returned home, they began the process of creating content about the China trip. They had to make sure all videos, blogs, and articles were easily understandable to a non-science audience since everything would be eventually posted online at on Youtube.

Through this experience, University of Missouri students were able to take what they had learned in theory and put it into practice. These skills will help them to have a unique advantage compared with their peers and help them as they move into their academic and professional careers. 


There is no question that the scientific field is becoming more global and the general public is becoming increasingly skeptical of science. This makes it critical that we begin developing graduate programs to incorporate experiences that allow students to engage in the world outside the lab and learn to communicate why their science is beneficial to society, both at home and abroad.

Supported by NSF Plant Genome Program Grant no. 1444448 to R.E.S. and a 111 Program grant to Prof. Shaozhong Kang, China Agricultural University

State of the art research meets breeding for wheat’s future

By Mathew Reynolds, Wheat Physiologist at, CIMMYT

First post of our “Global Collaboration” series

Wheat is the most widely grown crop in the world, currently providing about 20 percent of human calorie consumption.  However, demand is predicted to increase by 60 percent within just 30 years, while long-term climate trends threaten to reduce wheat productivity, especially in less developed countries.  

Ravi Singh presents rust resistance wheat trials to SAGARPA officials. Ciudad Obregon, Mexico 2017. Credit: CIMMYT/Alfonso Cortés


For over half a century, the International Wheat Improvement Network (IWIN), coordinated by CIMMYT, has been a global leader in breeding and disseminating improved wheat varieties to combat this problem, with a major focus on the constraints of resource poor farmers.

Two complementary networks — the Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Consortium (HeDWIC) and the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP) — are helping to meet the future demand for wheat consumption through global collaboration and technological partnership.

By harnessing the latest technologies in crop physiology, genetics and breeding, network researchers support the development of new varieties that aim to be more climate resilient, in the case of HeDWIC and with higher yield potential, in the case of IWYP

Novel approaches

These novel approaches to collaboration take wheat research from the theoretical to the practical and incorporate science into real-life breeding scenarios.  Methods such as screening genetic resources for physiological traits related to radiation use efficiency and identifying common genetic bases for heat and drought adaptation are leading to more precise breeding strategies and more data for models of genotype-by-environment interaction that help build new plant types and experimental environments for future climates.

IWYP addresses the challenge of raising the genetic wheat yield potential of wheat by up to 50 percent in the next two decades. Achieving this goal requires a strategic and collaborative approach to enable the best scientific teams from across the globe to work together in an integrated program. TheIWYP model of collaboration fosters linkages between ongoing research platforms to develop a cohesive portfolio of activities that maximizes the probability of impact in farmers’ fields IWYP research uses genomic selection to complement the crossing of complex traits by identifying favorable allele combinations among progeny.  The resulting products are delivered to national wheat programs worldwide through the IWIN international nursery system.

Wheat field trip
Credit: CIMMYT

Recently, IWYP research achieved genetic gains through the strategic crossing of biomass and harvest index — source and sink — an approach that also validates the feasibility of incorporating exotic germplasm into mainstream breeding efforts.

In the case of HeDWIC, intensified — and possibly new — breeding strategies are needed to improve the yield potential of wheat in hotter and drier environments. This also requires a combined effort, using genetic diversity with physiological and molecular breeding and bioinformatic technologies, along with the adoption of improved agronomic practices by farmers. The approach already has proof of concept in the release and adoption of three heat and drought tolerant lines in Pakistan.


It is imperative to build increased yield and climate-resilience to into future germplasm in order to avoid the risk of climate-related crop failure and to maintain global food security in a warmer climate. Partnerships like HeDWIC and IWYP give hope to meeting this urgent food security challenge.

 Further readings:

An economist’s perspective on plant sciences: Under-appreciated, over-regulated and under-funded